Considered to be one of America’s most influential painters, Christopher Wool is credited with revitalizing the genre whilst breaking down its many conventions. His influential body of work continues to provoke and please, managing to be equal parts irascible, elegant and timely. Executed in 2004, Untitled is a classic example of Wool’s celebrated Gray Paintings, which he made by spraying black enamel on canvas and then wiping it away with rags soaked in turpentine or solvent. Its profusion of curving black lines, dashed off in rapid-fire spray-gun style, flicker around the edges like so many electrified live wires, only to be effaced by broad, back-and-forth strokes of a turpentine-soaked rag. Here, the primal graffiti of the black enamel is alive with the hand of the artist, only to be effaced in languorous swathes of the rag, creating atmospheric washes of luminous gray. Steeped in the distinctive brand of sumptuous audacity that’s become synonymous with his radical paintings, Christopher Wool’s Untitled epitomizes the artist’s best work.
Towering over the viewer with its larger-than-life sized proportions, the painting’s eight-foot height makes it one of the largest in the series, assaulting the senses with the unusual particulars of its technique. Attacking the canvas with a spray-gun, Wool begins by applying a profusion of meandering black lines, of which this present example displays a particularly rich variety. A lyrical abundance of up-and-down undulations and looping arabesques proliferate toward the edges, snaking their way into the center of the piece. Relatively straight lines are placed among them, which rush toward the center from all areas of the periphery. Just above the center, two of these lines intersect, forming a cross-shape that evokes a window or a grid. Mostly, though, Wool has obliterated his own work, smearing the lines with rags soaked in turpentine or thinner. “Erasure is painting too,” the art critic Adrian Searle reminds us (A. Searle, “Northern Lights,” Guardian, February 5, 2004). Indeed, Wool creates a lavish surface were soft, atmospheric washes of delicate gray make for a paintings that’s both delicate and imposing, alive with the primal immediacy of the artist’s hand and rife with innovative techniques.
Wool’s signature erasure technique was born of serendipity, around the year 2000, when a routine movement of the hand happened to inspire the process for what would later become the hallmark of his Gray Paintings. As the legend goes, Wool was working on a painting in his studio, having come to a moment of indecision. In an act of frustration, he took up a rag soaked in turpentine, hoping to erase an irritating mark. He dragged the rag over the painting’s wet surface and—in a moment of happy luck—the movement of the rag over the wet paint left a smeared, yet uniquely beautiful, effect. This technique, born out of chance yet fueled by the artist’s inner inquisitiveness, would become the primary modus operandi of the Gray Paintings, where the accidental gesture is merged with the vital movement of the artist’s hand.
Coming of age in New York City during the 1970s and ‘80s, Wool has absorbed the sort of down-and-out, hardscrabble grit of that apocryphal era. Beginning with the text paintings of the 1980s, which seemed to shout at the viewer, grabbing their attention with large, black stenciled letters, Wool’s paintings have been infused with the hard-edged, downtown attitude that’s evoked by their stark, black-and-white palette and profusion of graffiti-like marks, smatterings and erasures. “These are urban paintings,” the artist and writer Mark Harris has written. “Not so much because of their surplus of graffiti and grunge, as by their enveloping noise articulated with finesse through gradations of car horn and tire-screech unreasonableness; the crisscrossing conversations in the darkest East Village bars; the experience of distanced sounds on the same streets after midnight; the eerily muffled traffic after the first heavy snowfall… [they] are very precisely tuned” (M. Harris, “Image as Noise,” in Christopher Wool, exh. cat., Camden Arts Centre, London, 2004).
Christopher Wool’s tools of the artist’s trade are those not traditionally thought of as relating to painting. He has used spray-paint, stencils, stamps, paint rollers, Xeroxes of previous work and solvent-soaked rags. For the most part, he has also eliminated color, representational imagery, pictorial illusion, and most of the other conventions normally associated with the genre of painting. By deliberately making use of non-art materials, Wool seems to advance, then refute, the nature of painting itself. This back-and-forth process parallels the way in which his cryptic black cyphers emerge from a shadowy abyss, only to sink back into oblivion in Untitled. They exist in a liminal state, where everything is in flux and nothing is certain.
“Christopher Wool is one of many painters who have experimented with bringing their medium to extinction,” the esteemed art critic Roberta Smith has written, in her New York Times review of his Guggenheim retrospective in 2013. “They strip it of familiar attributes like imagery, brushwork or flatness, often ending up with some kind of monochrome that suggests the last painting that could possibly be made” (R. Smith, “Painting’s End Game, Rendered Graphically,” New York Times, October 24, 2013). Indeed, Wool’s antithetical non-painted “paintings” have been credited with resuscitating the genre during the era of painting’s “endgame,” rising to the impossible task of creating utterly new work in an era in which everything seems to have already been done. Remarkably, Wool devised methods of painting that allowed him to attack tradition—by erasing, by using stenciled text, using spray paint and working on aluminum panels rather than canvas—whilst simultaneously adhering to traditional methods of two-dimensional painterly representation. Again, and again, he seems to find new and inventive ways of carrying on with the business of painting, a particularly daunting feat in the midst of our media-saturated, image-overloaded world.